Cell Phone Camera Tips

We’re going to get to a few life changing (no kidding) tips in a minute, but first, let’s talk about cell phone cameras in a general sense.  I did not coin this phrase, but it’s soooo true…”The best camera is the one you have with you.”  Cell phone cameras have come a long way in a pretty short time.  As of this writing, I would say that every currently manufactured smart phone out there (iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry) does somewhere between an adequate to great job at creating images.  In case you’re wondering, mine is an Android Nexus, but they are all very capable and continue to get better with every new device.  Having said that, cell phone cameras do have their limitations.

The main limitation is related to the image sensor.  It’s what gathers the light and records the information to create and save your photograph.  Here is a place where size really matters.  For comparative sake, a full frame digital SLR (for the most part, a digital camera you can change the lens on) has a sensor about the size of your thumb – from that last joint to the end (trying not to get too technical with all that millimeter talk).  Your typical point and shoot camera (can’t change the lens, but the lens can usually zoom out, and you can easily carry it in your purse or jacket pocket) has a sensor about the size of one of your fingernails (if it were cut short).  Most cell phone sensors are about the size of half your pinky fingernail (again, cut short).  We could get lost at this point in discussions about the number and size of the pixels on these sensors, but let’s just leave it at this…a tiny image sensor, means much less information can be recorded, which means a lower quality photo.  Don’t fall into a pit of depression.  It’s lower quality when compared to a $1,000 + camera that you need to hire someone to lug it and it’s associated lenses around.  You may not be able to print a crisp, clear 30×40 inch canvas from your cell phone shot (I’m actually working on this now), but you can print all the 4×6’s, 5×7’s, 8×10’s, and probably even 16×20’s, that you want.

Another limitation is the tiny lens that a cell phone has.  Rather than go into size comparisons as I did with the sensors, just look at it…it’s tiny!  That basically means that it can’t open and close in varying degrees (in the photo world we call this “aperture”), letting in (controlling) different amounts of light for different shooting situations.

These limitations (sensor and lens size) create 2 particular areas of difficulty for cell phone cameras…capturing images in low light and capturing images in fast action.  Understanding the problem is the first step to fixing it.  I promise to discuss how you can best deal with these issues later, and will even include sample images, to show you the “before and after” effects, but for now, let’s get on to some life changing tips.

I take a lot of cell phone pictures, and I also look at a lot of other people’s images.  One of the most common things I see that turns an otherwise great shot into an awful one, is lens glare.  The lens on your cell phone sits flush with the back of the device, providing it with no lens shading at all.  This means that unless your phone/camera is either in the shade (in other words, you are in the shade), or the sun is both low in the sky, and at your back, you are probably going to have some glare on your lens.  This can even occur when photographing inside, from overhead lights.   The light (indoor or outdoor), does not have to be shining directly into your camera to cause this.  It’s going to happen to a greater or lesser degree anytime the lens is not actually in the shade.  So, you might ask, “What will this evil lens glare do?”  It will kill you!  Ok, not really…but it will cause your pictures to have that flat, boring, washed out look.  It’s one of the main reasons we are so often disappointed in our cell phone cameras, and it’s pretty easy to fix.  Either shoot from a position that puts you/your camera in the shade/shadows, or carefully create that shade/shadow by cupping your free hand over the top of your phone/camera.  I say carefully because if you don’t pay close attention, you’ll have a finger or two show up at the top of your picture.  The difference in how rich and sharp and fully saturated with colors your images will be is amazing!

Here’s an example of a cell phone shot I took at about 3 PM (that’s a guess) on a fairly overcast day (kind a whitish looking sky), with my phone facing the in general direction of the sun (though it was mostly overhead):


See how flat, colorless and boring this is (though the dog is adorable!)?

Here’s the next shot, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but with my hand cupped over the top of my phone:

WOW!  That looks so much better!  There’s more contrast in the image, as well as more color, and greater sharpness/detail.  You could easily argue that one was from a bad cell phone camera and the other was from a great cell phone camera.  Don’t discount the value of this little trick!  Remember, either shoot from a position that puts you in the shade, or create your own shade using your hand or something like a hat.

Finally, here’s an image, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but I edited this one, on my phone, in about 5 minutes, using some free phone software called Snapseed.  It’s available for both Android and iPhone:


WOW, WOW, WOW!  This looks like it was shot with an expensive digital SLR camera, but I only used my phone.  Don’t forget to notice that I’ve used the rule of thirds in composing these images (discussed here in the blog).  It’s no longer a picture – we’ve made a piece of art, and you can too!  I’ll talk about making quick but significant editing changes to your cell phone images later, and even more in my book, but for now, I’ve gotta go.

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